Monday, June 30, 2014

Creational and Eschatological Monotheism...

I'd be interested in reactions to these paragraphs. Basically, I accept the logic of creational and eschatological formulations of God's oneness. But would most ordinary Jews of Jesus' day have come up with these ideas without prompting?
... It is hard to know how extensively Jews at the time of Christ might have conceptualized the oneness of God in creational and eschatological terms. It is one thing to quote a text like Isaiah 45:18: "Thus says YHWH, the one who created the skies—he is the God who formed the earth and made it… 'I myself am YHWH and there is no other.'" This verse demonstrates a connection between God as creator and any other divine claimant. Logically it makes sense that the being who created other beings would have a claim to primacy over the beings he or she created. However, how often did Jews at the time of Christ actually conceptualize God’s oneness in these terms?

For example, did most Jews actually have a clear sense of the origins of evil powers? There does not seem to be a single Jewish narrative in this regard, although no scenario at the time of the New Testament saw any other gods in existence prior to the God of Israel. [1] We have a tendency today in our analysis of Jewish thought to systematize, connect dots, fill in gaps, when most people do not have a systematic, coherent theology. To what extent did God as creator play into ordinary Jewish thinking about God as the one God at all? Presumably an ordinary Jew might have be attracted to this notion if someone had suggested it to them, but how many ancient Jews would have volunteered this dimension as part of the oneness of God without suggestion?

Similarly, we should not assume that all Jews, especially ordinary Jews, had a strongly linear sense of history. Although G. B. Caird held that the biblical writers did believe in an ultimate end to the world in the future, he also indicated that, “they regularly used end-of-the-world language metaphorically to refer to that which they well knew was not the end of the world.” [2] Perhaps with the exception of Daniel 12:2-3, all the apocalyptic imagery of the Hebrew Bible should be understood in terms of world changing events rather than the end of history. N. T. Wright has captured this element of modern speech with examples like saying that the fall of the Berlin Wall was an “earth-shattering” event. [3] Similarly, he has used the example of someone who might say after a tragedy, “This is the end of the world for me.” Only some forms of Judaism at the time of Christ were apocalyptic, and some of them may not actually have looked for an end to history in the way we so commonly assume.

For example, it is not at all certain that all the Jews at the time of Christ looked to the coming of a messianic king, but even most of those that did probably expected this individual simply to restore Israel and give it pride of place among the nations of the earth. [4] The apocalyptic imagery and nationalistic fervor may have increased in times of Israel’s oppression, [5] but it remains that many if not most Jews at the time of Christ had no sense of a final cosmic battle between good and evil. [6] This observation raises the question. Assuming that most of those Jews without a strongly linear-oriented eschatology affirmed the oneness of God, how can we consider eschatological monotheism anything like a central factor in ancient Jewish monotheism in general?

[1] Later Gnostic thinking would, by contrast. We can say, however, that all the Jewish narratives we know, prior to the New Testament, saw evil powers either as fallen angelic powers or as a result of the fall of angels, all which they presumably thought God created. The Life of Adam and Eve saw Satan’s fall in conjunction with his refusal to bow before Adam in the Garden of Eden (13-16). By contrast, 1 Enoch saw the fall of the angels in relation to their lust after the daughters of men in Genesis 6:2-4 (e.g., 1 Enoch 10, 15).

[2] The Language and Imagery of the Bible (London: Gerald Duckworth & Co., 1980), 256.

[3] New Testament and the People of God, 282-83.

[4] E.g., Psalms of Solomon 17. See James Charlesworth, ed. The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992); John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: Messianism in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010). Even the imagery of Revelation, as apocalyptic as it is, gives hints that its author may have seen history continuing in some way alongside the redeemed (e.g., Rev. 21:24-27).

[5] So even the generally philosophical and “vertical” Philo arguably became more “horizontal” and eschatological in lieu of the Jewish crisis during the reign of Caligula. See Rewards 95; cf. Peder Borgen, “There Shall Come Forth a Man, in The Messiah, 341-61, and Kenneth Schenck, A Brief Guide to Philo (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 37-41. Even here, however, Philo did not look for an end to history.

[6] We should keep in mind that Jewish thinking before the destruction of the temple in 70CE was considerably more diverse than it would become after Jewish thinking became somewhat standardized in the Rabbinic period. Even in rabbinic thought, however, there is no end to history, and rabbinic thought is far from apocalyptic in flavor.

1 comment:

Bob MacDonald said...

I teach the shema to our Sunday school. On the ambivalence of uniqueness vs unity, I liken the oneness of God to the circle we stand in - one circle, many people. The same sequence of letters occurs in Zech 12 in his apocalyptic framework. The argument is on my non-essay on Trinity here.

I have no idea if the Israelite on the street would process G-d in this way. I would - but that's me - not them.